emu1Based on Fuller, R.S., D.W. Hamacher, and R.P. Norris 2013 Astronomical orientations of Bora ceremonial grounds. Australian Archaeology 77:30-37.

By Michelle C. Langley



Last year, we highlighted the work of Duane Hamacher, Robert Fuller and Ray Norris (AA75), a team who have been exploring Australian Indigenous knowledge of astronomy. Their latest work, published in AA77, has continued to provide insights into the wide range of knowledge the First Australians have learned and passed on during their >40,000 year occupation of this continent. In this case, Fuller and colleagues have investigated a connection between Bora ceremonial grounds and the ‘Emu in the sky’.

LR Manuscript 2013016 Figure 1

The Emu in the Sky: Made up of the dark dust-clouds of the Milky Way, the ‘Emu in the Sky’ played an important role in the timing of male initiation ceremonies in southeastern Australia. Here you can see an engraving of the Emu below its matching celestial body (Elvina Track, Kuring-Gai Chase National Park, north of Sydney) (photography courtesy of Ray Norris).

Bora ceremonial grounds are found throughout southeast Australia, from southern Queensland, throughout New South Wales (NSW), and perhaps reaching as far south as northern South Australia. Bora grounds are special places used for the initiation of young men into manhood, and as information about these ceremonies is culturally sensitive, we cannot provide any more details other than to say that it was often during these occasions that boys were taught important aspects of the laws, customs, and traditions of their community. The name ‘Bora’ is the name given to the ceremony by the Kamilaroi of north-central NSW, and these ceremonies (and structures) are actually known by a number of different names throughout the large part of Australia for which they have been reported ethnographically (that is, by early European observers writing of their experiences of colonial Australia).

Despite having different names and being found across such a large area, the design of the Bora ground is remarkably consistent: two rings of different sizes (one large and one smaller), connected by a pathway and constructed from stone or raised earth. The area within the circles and pathway is then cleared of all debris and stamped until firm. The larger of the two rings is considered as a public space, accessible to everyone, while the smaller ring is a sacred area reserved for the male Elders and boys taking part in the ceremony. Importantly for archaeology, an Aboriginal man from Marulan (NSW), advised in 2004 that many of these special places were completely or partially destroyed immediately following the ceremony in order to conceal their location. This practice means that Bora ground sites will be underrepresented in the landscape and researchers must take this into account when constructing their interpretations of past Indigenous use of different regions. In other words, just because there is no structural evidence of a particular place, it does not mean that it was not used at all before European contact.

Manuscript 2013016 Figure 2 LR copy

Bora in the Milky Way: Here you can see the ‘Sky Bora’ found in the Milky Way as it is oriented (south-southwest) during mid-August an hour after sunset. The large circle represents the larger bora circle and the body of the emu, while the smaller circle represents the the head of the emu. 

Fuller and colleagues point out that there is a widespread tradition of connecting the Bora ceremonial ground with the ‘emu in the sky’ – that is, the emu made from the dust lanes in the Milky Way (see figure above). The connection of the emu to the male initiation ceremony makes perfect sense as it is the male emu who broods, hatches, and rears the emu young—perhaps symbolic of the male elders of the community guiding and teaching the adolescent boys.

To test this ethnographically reported connection between Bora grounds and the Milky Way, Fuller and colleagues analysed data on the orientation of 68 sites which provided enough information for careful consideration (after reviewing information on 1170 such reported sites!). Their results determined that there was indeed a preference for constructing Bora grounds with a south-southwesterly orientation—that is, matching the orientation of the Emu in the Sky during the most commonly reported month for the planning of ceremonies (August). Here, again then, we have been able to use archaeological evidence found in the earth to learn something about the importance of astronomical knowledge in Australia’s pre- (and post-) contact Indigenous societies.

For more information on stone arrangements see:

Gunn, R.G., L.C. Douglas and R.L. Whear 2012 Standing stones: An unrecorded form of stone arrangement from the Jawoyn lands of the Arnhem Land Plateau. Australian Archaeology 75:37–45. (The AA blog post on this article is available here.)

McIntyre-Tamwoy, S. and R. Harrison 2004 Monuments to colonialism? Stone arrangements, tourist cairns and turtle magic at Evans Bay, Cape York. Australian Archaeology 59:31–42.

Norris, R.P., C. Norris, D.W. Hamacher and R. Abrahams 2013 Wurdi Youang: An Australian Aboriginal stone arrangement with possible solar indications. Rock Art Research 30(1):55–65.

For more information on Indigenous knowledge of orientation and astronomy see:

Australian Indigenous Astronomy Website

Hamacher, D.W. & Frew, D.J. (2010). An Aboriginal Australian record of the Great Eruption of Eta Carinae. Journal of Astronomical History & Heritage, Vol. 13(3), pp. 220-234. (Pdf freely available here.)

Hamacher, D.W. and R.P. Norris 2011 ‘Bridging the Gap’ through Australian cultural astronomy. In C.L.N. Ruggles (ed.), Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy: Building Bridges Between Cultures, pp.282–290. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Norris, R.P. and D.W. Hamacher, 2010 Astronomical symbolism in Australian Aboriginal rock art. Rock Art Research 28(1):99–106.

Norris, R. and C. Norris 2009 Emu Dreaming: An Introduction to Australian Aboriginal Astronomy. Emu Dreaming: Sydney.